Visions of Paradise

Friday, December 17, 2010

Stone's Fall

The last two historical mysteries that I read by Iain Pears were both my favorite books in the year they were published: An Instance of the Fingerpost (2002) and A Dream of Scipio (2003), with the latter also being my favorite historical fiction of the decade. So naturally that created huge expectation for his latest historical mystery, Stone’s Fall.

Where the previous two were set hundreds of years ago, Pear's latest novel is set in three relatively-recent eras. The novel’s first portion is set in London in 1909 and concerns the abrupt death of financial magnate Lord Ravenscliff who falls out of his second story window (his real name is John William Stone, hence the title pun). His will leaves most of the money to his young wife, but there are two strange bequests: one is to a mysterious woman living in France, and the other is to an unknown child. Lady Ravenscliff, somewhat confused over these bequests, hires crime reporter Matthew Braddock to investigate both bequests at a very large annual annuity for seven years.

What then ensues is Braddock’s investigation of the will, which expands into investigating all of Lord Ravenscliff’s financial dealings, and his vast shipbuilding empire. There are wheels and wheels turning in the plot as Braddock and the reader learn much about early 20th century London’s financial institutions and also political dealings. Braddock eventually solves the mystery in a very satisfying way, if he does indulge in several leaps of deduction worthy of another detective of that milieu, Sherlock Holmes.

One of the people he encounters in his investigations is a mysterious government agent named Henry Cort who apparently has enough power to intimidate nearly everybody he encounters. Braddock is forced to deal with him at the section’s climax, and ultimately Cort leaves his personal journal to Braddock after both Cort’s and Lady Ravenscliff’s deaths many decades later.

The reading of Cort’s journal involves his own younger days in 1890 Paris, which comprises the second portion of the novel. It was Cort’s first dealings with spying for the British government and also involves financial dealings, specifically a plot to undermine the Bank of England. Cort proves to be nearly as deductive as Braddock was in the first section, and there are again wheels within wheels which provide a fascinating plot.

The third portion of the novel is John Stone’s journal about his younger days in Venice, including his dealings with both the builder of a prototype torpedo and the wife of a failed architect. The characters in this section are the most interesting in the book, running the gamut from a seer to a wraithlike figure who claims to be the walking incarnation of Venice itself. More financial dealings here, although less stretching of believability and deduction on the part of the narrator. And Pears manages to bring the entire novel full circle by showing how events in Venice impacted events in London thirty years later.

Stone’s Fall was a worthwhile book, mostly for its insight into the financial and banking structure in the late 19th century. If some of the novel was a bit too clever for its own good, the pace never lagged and the characters were all interesting people to read about. Its major failing was that it was unable to maintain the masterful level of the author’s previous novels.


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